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Workers at material recovery facilities (MRFs) face some of the harshest conditions in the solid waste industry. Not only are they directly interacting with recyclables, they also are confined inside a building with dust and odors. And in 2020, with the surge of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, workers now face additional risks.

Safety topics the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines are a good starting point for considering MRF safety. Some topics OSHA’s website addresses include worker rights, fall prevention, heat and personal protective equipment (PPE). Yet, within the recycling industry, MRF operators need to consider some additional specific safety issues.

Health risks

Solid waste workers have been classified as essential workers by the Department of Homeland Security during the pandemic. Waste and MRF workers are in direct contact with discarded materials that could potentially expose them to viral pathogens. Most MRF workers must stand near each other, which can increase their risk of exposure to the virus.

Prior to the pandemic, many MRF workers already wore masks. If they previously did not wear a mask before the pandemic, now is a good time to start wearing one. As of July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says masks can help protect workers from others who might carry the virus. CDC recommends that masks should be at least three layers, fit well over the nose and mouth and ideally be made of material that does not hold moisture.

Also, if employees are not used to wearing masks, they should monitor themselves and co-workers for signs of breathing difficulty or distress. Facilities also can install plexiglass shields, especially in areas where employees must be near customers or other employees.

Because employees are physically touching scrap, they must be diligent about hand washing. Hand-washing stations should be set up in key locations to facilitate this practice. If hand-washing stations are not practical, hand sanitizer should be made available instead. However, even if hand sanitizer is used, employees should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds with water and soap as soon as possible following their shifts.

Latex gloves can provide a layer of protection, but they must be removed properly to avoid contaminating hands. Gloves are not a substitute for proper hand washing, and latex gloves do not provide puncture- resistance against items like needles.

Facilities might have to rethink staff scheduling, as well. Many sites are staggering lunch breaks, asking employees to eat in their cars or requiring social distancing in break rooms. Some facilities are splitting their crews into groups and rotating them in and out after periods of home isolation. This can help ensure that if one group gets sick, a backup crew is ready to come into work. This model, while effective, also is costly and not as sustainable for the long term. A better approach would be to cross-train employees so that they can step into several different jobs if people are out sick.

Respiratory risks

Because a MRF is a contained space, dust cannot as easily blow away and disperse into the surrounding air; it can linger and cause issues for workers. Dust can create a choking hazard, irritate eyes and reduce visibility. It also can damage equipment.

Ideally, dust should be minimized through proper ventilation and controlled airflow, but dust management does not start inside the MRF. Loads should be screened at the entrance gate or the scale house. Loads that have the potential to cause significant dust during the unloading process can be sprayed down prior to unloading. Dusty loads also could be directed to an isolated portion of the tipping floor, farther away from employees.

Inside the MRF, dust is typically managed using misting systems in areas where dust is most likely to be generated. Equipment that generates significant dust could be enclosed or be housed in a separate building. Water misters can be used at various points along the process to minimize dust. Some MRFs also use blower systems that apply negative pressure to remove dust from the air.

General housekeeping and PPE

Because workers are in small spaces and often on platforms, the general working area of a MRF can get messy. Dropped materials, bulky bins or spilled liquids can create trip or slip hazards. MRFs should have a clear plan that addresses these issues, including who is responsible for cleanup, when cleanups happen, how many bins are necessary and how bins should be stored on the catwalk to avoid congestion.

Because MRF workers are so hands-on with scrap, personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical to ensure their safety. Needles, household hazardous waste, sharp pieces of metal or batteries might show up on a sort line, and employees need to protect themselves against the unexpected.

At a minimum, employees should wear sturdy boots, long pants, long sleeves and gloves. Gloves should be puncture-resistant if employees are at risk of exposure to sharps or needles.

Eye protection (goggles or safety glasses) and masks also are recommended for MRF workers.


Fire risks

Fires aren’t uncommon in MRFs. In June, 34 fires were reported at solid waste facilities, according to data tracked by Fire Rover, West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Many MRF fires are caused by lithium-ion batteries. Despite education and outreach programs designed to prevent people from placing batteries in recycling bins, many of them still end up at MRFs. 

To prevent battery-related fires at MRFs, operations should consider having line pickers pull batteries off the line before they even make it into the system. In addition, MRFs should have a robust fire safety prevention and response plan in place. While fires are not totally preventable, several sprinkler systems are available that can detect smoke or heat and dispense fire retardant or water. Fire Rover is one system that uses thermal imaging cameras to detect heat and offers remote-controlled suppression options. 

Equipment risks

MRFs are like factories, and their equipment is subject to harsh conditions and unexpected materials. All MRFs must deal with unwanted materials, such as grocery bags, strings of holiday lights and metal cables, that can wrap around equipment and lead to damage or shutdowns. Employees often must go inside or near equipment to clean it off. In these situations, lockout and tagout are imperative.

Often, employees or maintenance workers will take shortcuts, thinking, “I’m just going inside this machine for two minutes.” But failure to properly lockout and tagout equipment every single time can lead to injuries and fatalities. 

Lockout/tagout also are OSHA requirements. Several different types of locks and tags are available, so MRFs should train employees on how to properly lockout and tagout equipment and how to recognize if equipment has been shut down. 

Emergency planning

Regarding general emergency response planning, MRFs have some special considerations. Employees are in tight quarters, and in the event of a facility fire or other emergency, clear policies on emergency equipment shutdowns and building evacuation are necessary. A plan is only as good as the implementation, so regular drills are crucial. 

Because a MRF is loud and spread over a large area, it can be difficult to communicate about an emergency effectively. MRF managers should consider installing an emergency warning or shut-off system that would allow the entire system to shut down instantly in the event of an emergency or accident. 

Balance the bales

Once the materials have been separated and baled, they must be stored, commonly in stacks.

Injuries and fatalities related to falling bales are issues at MRFs. Bale storage areas should be designated as a special work area and access should be limited to authorized trained employees. According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), no more than four bales should be stacked vertically, unless they are stair-stepped, and bales should be visually inspected daily to ensure stability. 

In addition, regular training on bale safety should be part of a MRF’s overall safety program. 

Leverage technology

Safety for MRF workers is an issue that can be addressed in part by automation and robotics, according to Don Gambelin, head of sales and business development Everest Labs, a MRF robotics technology company based in Fremont, California.

“One of the pillars of our design is safety,” he says. “MRF workers have to do very repetitive movement, and over time this can cause injury.”

Doing the same task over and over for the duration of a day-long shift can lead to boredom. Boredom and fatigue can lead to slower reflexes and poor decision-making, ultimately leading to injury.

Robots—especially those used at MRFs—are designed to do the same movement over and over. Gambelin says robots can be better than humans at monotony. A robot never gets bored. It does not get tired. And in the time of COVID-19, robots do not transmit disease.

“A lot of MRFs are challenged right now because they have to space people out, and that is difficult in a MRF where workers are crowded side by side on a pick line,” Gambelin says.

Some of the robotics being developed by manufacturers for MRF applications can fit in the space a human takes up in a pick line, which could open up space between workers. Robots can also be put in high-risk areas, near machines that are noisy, produce high levels of dust, or have potential cutting or pinching points.

Many MRFs are continuing to expand into new technologies and markets. As MRFs explore ways to automate, human workers will continue to be an integral part of MRF operations. Let’s keep working to keep those workers safe every day.

The Blue Ridge Services team provides process improvement and safety services to the solid waste industry. Visit www.blueridgeservices.com to learn more.